For the ninth and last time in San Diego, a crowd of thousands descended upon the largest technology conference for people with disabilities. The CSUN Assistive Technology Conference moves to Anaheim in 2019, but more about that later.
Shelly Brisbin was one of many to call 2016 the year of braille in her CSUN wrap-up in the April, 2016 issue of AccessWorld. While I certainly agreed with that sentiment, 2018 appears to be the year that many of those promised braille devices will actually be available for sale. From high-tech to low-tech, many devices and technologies caught our attention at this year's conference.
For the sixth consecutive year, AFB sponsored exhibit hall interview coverage on Blind Bargains. This year's coverage included over 30 podcasts from companies large and small. Visit the CSUN 2018 audio page on Blind Bargains to hear these podcasts or read text transcripts.
The Canute Grows Up into a Full-page Braille Machine
One of Shelly's mentions in that 2016 article was the Canute from Bristol Braille Technology, a multiline braille display that has been called a "Kindle for the blind." Two years and 5 prototypes later, the display has grown to 9 lines with 40 cells each, or 360 cells total. Think of the Canute as a braille embosser without paper. Canute prints braille on its display line by line from top to bottom, making it easy to read a page as the text is being produced. I was shown several demos of the versatility of the display to present multiline information that a typical braille display renders poorly, such as a calendar, sports statistics in a table, braille music, and math problems.
Canute accepts memory cards and may also be controllable from a computer in the future. It's not ideal for quickly reading through menus and screens, but works great for reading books, articles, or other long-form material.
The price is the other amazing feature of the Canute, with expected retail of just a few dollars per cell. Hear a demo with Ed Rogers, Founder and Managing Director of Bristol Braille Technology and Dave Williams, the Chair of the nonprofit group the Braillists, in this Blind Bargains podcast.
More Low-Cost Braille Displays
Many of our readers are likely familiar with the Orbit Reader 20, the low-cost 20-cell braille display from APH and Orbit Research. While APH hopes to return the Orbit to retail by the summer, another display from Innovision has snuck on the scene.
The BrailleMe is a 20-cell display that will be sold in the same under-$500 price range as the Orbit Reader 20. The BrailleMe includes cursor routing keys that can be used to move the cursor to a cell while editing, a feature the Orbit lacks. It also uses 6-dot braille, making it potentially more difficult to follow a cursor or enter special characters. (The Orbit Reader 20 features traditional 8-dot braille.) The BrailleMe works with the latest versions of iOS, Android, VoiceOver on the Mac, and NVDA for Windows. It also includes a translator to convert loaded files on the fly.
The best way for me to describe the braille of the BrailleMe is that it's similar to signage braille. The dots are very well defined and pronounced and give a different feeling from traditional displays. It's not a bad thing in my opinion, just not what most users would be accustomed to feeling. As more affordable braille technologies develop, I'd expect to see, or feel, more variance in the types of braille these displays offer. Expect the BrailleMe to hit US shores this summer.
The Tiny and Flexible Brailliant BI14
For those who prefer a more traditional style of braille cell, Humanware is now taking orders for the Brailliant BI14, their new 14-cell braille display that sells for under a thousand bucks. It includes many of the features you'd expect on a modern display including the ability to pair to multiple devices, a stopwatch and clock, and a built-in notes app. The notes app is intriguing because these notes can then be synced with your iPhone using the free Brailliant Sync app. The unit features 20 hours of battery life and weighs just over a half pound.
The Tiny and Flexible BrailleSense Polaris Mini
Speaking of small devices, HIMS was showing off a smaller brother to the BrailleSense Polaris Android-based notetaker. The 20-cell BrailleSense Polaris Mini includes the same software and features as its larger counterpart, along with modern conveniences like a USB-C port for charging and a Micro-HDMI port for sending the screen to an external device. It's also lighter, weighing in at under a pound. The only tradeoff will be the battery life, which is about 12 hours on the Polaris Mini, compared with 20 for the 32-cell Polaris. It's a marked improvement compared with the battery life of the previous generation U2 Mini however. It's available now for a preorder price of $3,995, $200 off the normal price for the unit and about $1,800 less than the larger Polaris model. Damian Pickering and Jenny Axler from HIMS discuss the Polaris Mini in a Blind Bargains interview.
An Update to the Slate and Stylus
Sometimes the coolest innovations are hidden in the back of the hall. A company called Overflow Biz was displaying a new take on the slate and stylus—an erasable, paperless slate called the Versa. The contraption includes four rows of text and operates like a normal slate but with one major difference. Instead of punching holes into paper, the slate creates braille dots on its reverse side, which can be felt by flipping it over. Buttons on the side of each row are pressed to erase what was written. Think of it as a braille whiteboard: a simple way to jot down names, phone numbers, or other items you need to remember for a short period of time or until you are able to transfer them to a computer or phone. The slate is a prototype for now and the hope is to sell it for under $100.
Dot Returns with an Improved Watch Model
We've seen the Dot, a 4-cell braille smartwatch, evolve over the past couple of years at the conference. This year the company has added some of the most requested and needed features to the unit including water resistance, a find-my-phone feature, and the ability to view notifications on the watch. In my limited testing, I still noticed problems with the braille dots, especially when keeping my fingers on the watch face. The dots often do not appear if fingers are covering the holes, even if the fingers are later moved away. This is problematic for features such as the watch's built-in timer function, a feature that often necessitates the constant viewing of the display. The company is also working on a full-page braille display called the Dot Pad, and their model packs over 20 lines of braille into a braille paper-sized surface. The Dot pad appeared to be an early prototype, and work will need to be done to bring this one to the market. Still, we are very encouraged by the multiple options for more affordable braille displays and their potential to reverse the downward trend of braille literacy. Find the Blind Bargains Dot interview here.
More Access in the Workplace
Cisco and HP were two companies I was surprised to find in the exhibit hall, but both were there for similar exciting reasons. Cisco is bringing accessibility to their IP Phone 8800 Series enterprise telephones through a free software update. These phones are typically used in offices and conference rooms and have become increasingly more complex over the past several years. The update will be free for existing owners of these phones. The text-to-speech features will be available to all users of these devices and can be enabled independently by a blind employee once the software update has been installed.
Moving across the office, HP has created a box that can be connected to many of its enterprise-level printers. Like telephones, printers now generally feature rather involved menu systems that can be used to change parameters or check the health of the printer. HP's device won't be free but should be available soon to its enterprise customers.
Access to employment is often limited by inaccessible tools in the office, so it's encouraging to see mainstream companies step up with viable solutions that could lead to wider employment by people with visual impairments.
Accessible Package Delivery from Amazon Lockers
While much of the focus from Amazon's booth and suite was placed on their accessible Kindles, Fire TV products, and the Amazon Echo family of assistants, the company also demonstrated a way for customers who are blind to audibly locate their packages. Amazon Lockers are available in thousands of locations in many major cities and are a way for people to receive packages when they are not home. They're ideal for those living in apartment complexes or houses where package delivery is unreliable.
Amazon is rolling out voice guidance features to their lockers, which will both give instructions on how to retrieve your package as well as auditory guidance toward the correct locker. Similar to an ATM, the voice prompts are accessed through headphones while the keypads have also been enhanced with braille and tactile markings. Currently, when searching for a locker on Amazon's website, there is no way to tell if a locker is one that has been made accessible. Hopefully, this change can be made to ensure that customers who need this feature will be able to find lockers they can use until all lockers are accessible. Expect accessibility features to start rolling out across Amazon's network of lockers this summer. Shelly recorded an extensive interview with Amazon's Peter Korn that goes into more details on this and other company initiatives.
The CSUN Assistive Technology Conference has evolved into an event that serves the needs of website designers, accessibility consultants, access technology companies, and users of products and services for people with disabilities. It has gone more mainstream with the likes of Google, Amazon, and Microsoft having prominent presences. For 2019, the conference moves north to the Anaheim Marriott, a location that should give better access for international travelers. We'll see many of you there from March 11–15, and of course we'll write about the latest in technology right here in AccessWorld.
- CSUN 2017: Technology Highlights by Shelly Brisbin
- CSUN 2017: Observations of a Conference Newbie by Jamie Pauls
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